VOICES: When “profiling” backfires


The subject of profiling, the practice of weighing someone’s guilt or innocence based on the way they look or act, is bandied about a lot these days. Some people think it’s a perfectly acceptable practice when carried out by law enforcement. After walking into two profiling situations today I’m convinced of its dangers, not only to the victims but also the perpetrators.

First, at a little before 3 p.m. my teenage daughter and I were heading for the Ripple Effect event at the State Capitol grounds to hear Michael Franti, a musician we both like. After we crossed Constitution Avenue a volunteer with the National Lawyers Guild pointed out to me that a state trooper took our picture as we crossed the street, and that he was taking pictures of every person that entered the venue from the same direction.

Was he taking pictures to use against us in the future, track us, or intimidate us? Was it her peace buttons or my funky camera bag? Were we guilty by association?

I have a camera myself and I took a photo of him, camera in hand. I can see his name clearly on his shirt and will, as suggested by the NLG volunteer, be sending the photos to both the ACLU and the NLG. I’ll pursue what the state intends to do with all the photos of all those people.

Later, down at Mears Park for the start of the Poor People’s March, I witnessed the profiling of a youth on a bike who had been pulled to the curb by a group of police officers on bikes. He was forced to the ground, placed in white plastic handcuffs, while police riffled through his backpack even though he said, “I do not consent.”

Invisible behind this confab of police and journalists is a young man who was profiled as a troublemaker, separated from his bike and backpack, handcuffed, but quickly released after 20-30 photographers and videographers were alerted to the arrest taking place.

But many jumpy journalists and legal observers were gathered with the marchers, and thanks to two alert citizens who sounded the alarm of an arrest in progress, the police were quickly facing the lenses of 20-30 photographers, videographers and camera phone guerillas. Caught red-handed without a cause to arrest other than he didn’t “look right,” the officers struggled with the cuffs for a few minutes as the crowd of observers grew and questions were fired amid the click-click-click of shutters and video cameras silently took in the scene.

Suddenly, one of the police officers standing over the young man called out, “Do you have any box cutters?” to another posse of cops on bikes that had arrived with the influx. The terrified youth was soon released and quietly left the area.

Kathlyn Stone is an independent journalist in St. Paul. She maintains a health and science news site at fleshandstone.net. E-mail stonekat@comcast.net